Tocotrienols inhibit AKT and ERK activation and suppress pancreatic cancer cell proliferation by suppressing the ErbB2 pathway

Free Radic Biol Med. 2011 Sep 15;51(6):1164-74. doi: 10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2011.06.008. Epub 2011 Jun 21.


Tocotrienols are members of the vitamin E family but, unlike tocopherols, possess an unsaturated isoprenoid side chain that confers superior anti-cancer properties. The ability of tocotrienols to selectively inhibit the HMG-CoA reductase pathway through posttranslational degradation and to suppress the activity of transcription factor NF-κB could be the basis for some of these properties. Our studies indicate that γ- and δ-tocotrienols have potent antiproliferative activity in pancreatic cancer cells (Panc-28, MIA PaCa-2, Panc-1, and BxPC-3). Indeed both tocotrienols induced cell death (>50%) by the MTT cell viability assay in all four pancreatic cancer cell lines. We also examined the effects of the tocotrienols on the AKT and the Ras/Raf/MEK/ERK signaling pathways by Western blotting analysis. γ- and δ-tocotrienol treatment of cells reduced the activation of ERK MAP kinase and that of its downstream mediator RSK (ribosomal protein S6 kinase) in addition to suppressing the activation of protein kinase AKT. Suppression of activation of AKT by γ-tocotrienol led to downregulation of p-GSK-3β and upregulation accompanied by nuclear translocation of Foxo3. These effects were mediated by the downregulation of Her2/ErbB2 at the messenger level. Tocotrienols but not tocopherols were able to induce the observed effects. Our results suggest that the tocotrienol isoforms of vitamin E can induce apoptosis in pancreatic cancer cells through the suppression of vital cell survival and proliferative signaling pathways such as those mediated by the PI3-kinase/AKT and ERK/MAP kinases via downregulation of Her2/ErbB2 expression. The molecular components for this mechanism are not completely elucidated and need further investigation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Apoptosis / drug effects
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Proliferation / drug effects
  • Enzyme Activation / drug effects
  • Extracellular Signal-Regulated MAP Kinases / metabolism*
  • Gene Expression Regulation / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Oncogene Protein v-akt / metabolism*
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / pathology
  • Receptor, ErbB-2 / genetics
  • Receptor, ErbB-2 / metabolism*
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects
  • Tocotrienols / pharmacology*


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Tocotrienols
  • ERBB2 protein, human
  • Receptor, ErbB-2
  • Oncogene Protein v-akt
  • Extracellular Signal-Regulated MAP Kinases